In what is being viewed by Government House as a major step forward in addressing the need for a high school on St. John, Governor John deJongh has received an endorsement from U.S. Senator John D. Rockefeller IV for the St. John School bill, now under consideration in the Senate.
DeJongh has actively lobbied Rockefeller and other U.S. senators about the need to lease National Park land on St. John for the purpose of building a K-12 school. In his letter to Rockefeller, the governor pointed out that when the National Park was developed more than fifty years ago, the educational needs of local residents were not fully contemplated.
“While the park has developed into one of the gems of the National Park system, it has done so at some considerable cost to the current generation of native residents,” said deJongh.
The governor noted that today, the school-aged population has grown beyond the capacity of St. John’s outdated educational infrastructure.
“Many of St. John’s children are faced with a daily commute by ferries to attend schools on St. Thomas,” said deJongh. “When the seas are rough, they cannot attend school. Some children begin their days at 4 a.m. and do not return to their homes before dark.”
The bill, sponsored by V.I. Congressional Delegate Donna Christian Christensen, would authorize the National Park Service to enter into a lease agreement with the Virgin Islands government for the purpose of constructing a long overdue public school on St. John. Earlier in the year, Rockefeller traveled to the Virgin Islands at deJongh’s invitation, met with St. John residents and saw first-hand the need for a new school on St. John.
DeJongh also wrote that several options have been considered including the swapping of National Park land for islets, cays and other government-owned lands but all such efforts have failed.
“Laurance Rockefeller promised Virgin Islanders that the park would not exist at the expense of the basic needs and aspirations of the St. John population,” said deJongh. “I believe that the park’s visionaries would agree that today, provisions should be made for the local population. I strongly believe that our children deserve a public education that is safe and accessible.”
Laurance Rockefeller’s intent when establishing the park was not to restrict residents, Senator Rockefeller wrote in a letter to deJongh.
“Although (my uncle) Laurance was one of the most passionate conservationists I’ve ever known, I am confident in saying that when he donated the land to establish the National Park, his intent was to enrich the residents by preserving the natural beauty of their island, not to restrict them totally from its benefits,” said Rockefeller.
Rockefeller did point out concerns he has about the precedent of the National Park Service leasing land in such a way.
“I understand that the National Park poses a unique problem given the geography and topography of St. John,” said Rockefeller. “Unique problems often call for unique solutions.”
While Rockefeller acknowledged that the government and the National Park Service are at loggerheads over the issue, he urged the administration “to find a solution to allow the children of St. John the educational opportunity they deserve,” Rockefeller wrote.
“My administration has been working closely with the Secretary of the Interior, the National Park Service, Delegate Christensen, and other concerned St. Johnians to achieve this long-awaited goal of bringing education fairness to the children of St. John,” deJongh said. “When I decided to invite Senator Rockefeller to St. John, it was my hope that his visit would inspire his concern about children which has been a Rockefeller family tradition, and a hallmark of his outstanding Senate career. St. John children now have a champion in the U.S. Senate.”
Gaining Sen. Rockefeller’s support “is a significant milestone in our effort to gain passage of the bill,” deJongh said.
The administration remains hopeful that the Senate Energy Committee and the National Park Service will follow Rockefeller’s judgement on this issue.
“The other senators understand and respect the Rockefeller family’s significant role in the history of St. John and we are deeply appreciative of his endorsement,” deJongh said.
DeJongh Vetoes Section of Bill Restricting New School To Cruz Bay
Governor John deJongh last month vetoed section 10 of Bill 27-0099, which restricted the construction of a new school on St. John to Cruz Bay. DeJongh, who approved seven sections of the bill, explained his actions in his transmittal to Senate President Usie Richards.
“Although I strongly support the concept of creating a public high school on the island of St. John, I vetoed section 10 as the statute involved restricts the development of such a school to the Cruz Bay area,” deJongh explained. ”This limitation is inconsistent with our efforts and those of Delegate [to Congress Donna] Christensen, other members of Congress, and the National Park Service to find suitable acreage on St. John for the erection of a public K through 12 educational facility. I will be submitting legislation to amend 17 V.I.C. § 52 to allow for the development of the school in an appropriate area of St. John.”